The Friendship Bench

The Friendship Bench
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By Nicole Royle

Assignments begin to pile up, deadlines zoom closer and loans grow more intimidating each year; student life is stressful. Add the symptoms of a mental illness, and graduating only becomes harder. 

Post-secondary institutions have a great influence on student mental health. Roma Rashidi, counsellor at Centennial College Story Arts Centre, said the school has made considerable efforts to help students with mental illness.

“Who knows stress and worries better than the students,” Rashidi said. Centennial College offers counselling programs with designated counsellors at all four campuses. While these counselling departments continue to introduce new mental health programs to their campuses, services are not distributed equally. 

Rashidi is the sole counsellor at the Story Arts Centre campus. She works part time at the campus for 24 hours per week. This gives students only three days to access one-on-one counselling. The campus has over 1,300 full-time students.

While the Story Arts Centre campus has fewer services than other Centennial campuses, for example one counsellor as opposed to the two at Morningside and Progress campuses, Rashidi has not been deterred. She continues to bring more mental health programs to the school. She recently launched a peer-to-peer initiative, which involves students passing around wellness kits full of items to spark self-awareness and information about counselling services. This encourages students to engage in an open dialogue about stressors and mental health issues. 

The yellow bench, newly introduced at the Story Arts Centre, is another support. The yellow bench, dubbed “the Friendship Bench,” is a place where students are encouraged to share about mental health and is intended to be a safe space for students to reflect.

“My hope is that I’ll be working more with students on projects on doing things together with students, doing more peer initiatives,” said Rashidi. “Because, yes, it’s good to have counsellors, it’s good to have support. But it’s also good to work on students’ resilience because we all have amazing resilience.”

When asked of the disparity in services across campuses, Tracey Lloyd, Director Career and Counselling Services, said that it is difficult to give funding to one specific program such as counselling, when the college offers so many different services and programs. “We can’t really isolate one program, we have to look at the needs across the college,” said Lloyd. 

In the past, the Story Arts Centre campus had more counselling programs and services, including group therapy sessions and full-time counsellors. However, the cuts in funding are the result of a lack of demand for counselling services at the campus in previous years. “We need to look at this as an institution and look at where the needs are,” said Lloyd.

As it stands, the Story Arts Centre campus only sees the need for a part-time counsellor and minimal services. However Rashidi said the more that students become aware of mental health and its relevance, the more use of services will rise. 

With a higher demand for counselling services, and more students willing to not only use the services but also volunteer in supporting them, the counselling department can show that there is a higher demand. 

Post-secondary institutions involve a stressful atmosphere for students. With subpar mental health services, excelling becomes an even more daunting task. The school, and student body must take every possible step toward maintaining mental wellness. It is crucial. Especially when students now have an entire faculty working for them and free services provided. 

Rashidi is proud of the students who are speaking out, participating and asking for more counselling services. She considers student advocacy an amazing sign, and encourages students to continue speaking out for their needs.

“It helps us sort of make a case that, yes, there is (a need). Maybe we should have a full-time,” said Rashidi. “Maybe we should have more than full-time.”

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